In certain parts of the United States, barbecue culture is doctrinal. Texas insists on beef over oak; the Carolinas prefer pork over hickory; Kansas City likes sauce sweetened with molasses; and Kentucky worships smoked mutton. Even within state lines there are multiple micro-regional styles, with different camps arguing over who upholds the purest form. One thing is certain, though—veer away from the sacred mantra ‘low and slow’ and you’ll be met with an unforgiving wrath. As barbecue author John Shelton Reed wrote, “Do not confuse the sacred and the propane.”
But before these regional distinctions formed, barbecue abided by a simpler set of instructions—it was merely smoked meat (any type that was available) cooked outside, intended for large groups of people. “Barbecue as we know it today is a combination of Western European meets Native American techniques,” says Robert Moss, the author of Barbecue: The History of an America institution, the first full-length history on the subject.
As Moss points out, it wasn’t until the 19th century that barbecue became a more formalized social ritual, used to unite people during electoral campaigns in the Jacksonian era. The ‘Barbecue Man’ emerged as a respected local figure in the later part of this century, and around the 1920s, actual restaurants with permanent pits started to replace itinerant road-side stands.
“Barbecue dominated the market from the ’30s to ’50s, and was really the first fast food. Even the original McDonald’s started out serving barbecue.”
The past 10 years has also produced major shifts in the ‘cue scene. Urban centers once looked down upon—like NYC—have entered the conversation; meanwhile, Austin’s Aaron Franklin became the first pitmaster to take home a James Beard Award, beating out chefs at tonier white-table-cloth establishments.
To better understand how the tradition of barbecue took hold here in United State, we tapped into Moss’ deep knowledge of smoked meat for a flyover view of ‘cue history.
The Origins of BBQ in the Colonial Era
While barbecue may not be an American invention, it developed its own subset of characteristics here in the United States. “Native Americans were using a grid of sticks for drying and smoking meats rather than actually cooking or roasting it,” Moss says. “They would hold the meat high above the fire to let it smoke and preserve it.” The colonists took this concept and combined it with their Western European technique for roasting different proteins like fish.
Despite its deep association with the South, the practice initially took hold along the Atlantic Coast in North America. “Around the turn of the 18th century, Spanish and British colonists were cooking meat barbecue-style along the coast,” Moss says. “Some of the earliest mentions of barbecue came from New England.” From there, it spread to Virginia, where it evolved to become one of the primary forms of social entertainment. It continued southwards, down to the Appalachians and Carolinas; to Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky; and eventually, by the 1840s, to Mississippi and Texas.
Political Strategy And Large-Scale Outdoor Events
“Barbecue just got bigger and bigger in the 19th century and was more formalized as a social ritual,” Moss says. “It was standard during elections and became a way for the community to celebrate the Fourth of July in the South. Hundreds to thousands of people would come to roast cows, pigs, and sheep. There would be a big procession of people coming in. They would retire to a shady grove, chop down trees, and make tables and benches out of them.”
While social in practice, barbecue also had strong political undertones.
“There would be a round of toasts,” Moss says. “Thirteen toasts for one of the thirteen original states, and then volunteer toasts after that. It was a form of community building and patriotism.”
Election candidates and public officials were quick to utilize the barbecue to their advantage. “It was the best way to get a bunch of people together to hear your message,” Moss notes. “Barbecues would become partisan debate affairs and also a form of civic celebration. To raise money to build a railroad, for example, they would hold a huge railroad barbecue.”
A 19th-century roast relied on whatever was available. “There was no refrigeration at all, and it was whatever livestock they had on stand that they could spare.” (Think sheep, lambs, goats, venison, and turkey.) “It would be butchered on site, dressed, and then put on the pits. The animals would be laid on wood poles or iron bars. There was a basting sauce that was some combination of butter, vinegar, salt, and red pepper.”
The Rise of Restaurants
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that this ritual moved indoors to restaurants. “Toward the end of the 19th century, some of the barbecue men became famous. They would start cooking barbecue and bringing it into town for the weekend.” Thus began the tradition of roadside barbecue stands, which eventually paved the way for restaurants. Moss points to Skilton M. Dennis of North Carolina as one of the more prominent restaurateurs. Today, his descendants are still cooking pulled pork with vinegar and red pepper at Skylight Inn.
“It evolved over time,” Moss says. “The earliest restaurants were cooking meat in a trench dug into the ground. Around the 1920s and 1930s, restaurants started building permanent brick pits.” This evolution helped fuel the rivalries between regional styles.
The Regionalization of Barbecue in the 20th Century
“Each region got its own style of restaurant because if you’re cooking on a weekly or daily basis, you have to settle on a specific cut,” Moss says. Barbecue joints ended up focusing on the one or two meats that were most common in their area, as well as sides like watermelon and bread that wouldn’t spoil.
Slowly, various restaurants started to develop their own signature flourishes, including distinct sauces. North Carolina touted slaw and hush puppies. Texans vouched for brisket with onions and pickles. “You become partisan to your particular style,” Moss says. “A lot of it is good-natured fun, and it’s sticking up for the few things we have left that really distinguishes one region of the South from the other.”
There were also a few men, like Warner Stamey of North Carolina, who spread their particular brand of barbecue to their disciples. Stamey, for one, specialized in wood-pit cooked pork with a unique Lexington-style dip of vinegar, black and red pepper, tomatoes, and a hint of sugar.
The Decline and Rebirth of Barbecue
“The barbecue restaurant dominated the American restaurant market form the ’30s to the ’50s. It spread all along the Florida roadsides to California. By the late 19th century to the 20th century, it had gone everywhere except for the Northeast,” Moss said.
But a new dining trend would soon come along to crush barbecue’s reign. That nemesis? Fast food.
“In the ’50s, Burger King and McDonald’s came on the scene. McDonald’s actually began as a barbecue joint; that was their specialty. But because it was a tight margin and a really competitive scene, they shut down their restaurant for a couple of months and replaced it with burgers, fries, and shakes. They cut their prices and made up for it in volume,” Moss says.
By the ’60s and ’70s, it was getting harder for pitmasters to make a living. Business was slow and it was difficult to find labor. The family members of these barbecue men didn’t want to do the hard work, and the old places started disappearing as a result. “You started to see gas and electric pits instead of wood,” Moss says. The main issue was that, unlike the increasingly popular fast-food joints, barbecue took an extremely long time to make. The food simply could not compete.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that people started to rediscover barbecue. A variety of factors played a role in this revivial, including the competition barbecue circuit and the Food Network. These days, a lot of classically trained chefs are interested in cooking with wood again.
“Austin-style Texas barbecue is a hot thing to do. Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue just won a James Beard award,” Moss says. The significance of that award fo the barbecue community is monumental. The Beard Awards, after all, are usually reserved for white-table-cloth establishments, not restaurants that started in a trailer. “But Franklin’s lines speak for themselves.”
“It’s back and as big as ever,” Moss says of the tradition. “Let’s see where it goes from there.”